With Spectre, the 24th installment of the long-running James Bond franchise, hitting theaters this November, we’re taking a weekly look back across the entire series and charting its changes across its five decades. This week, we look at the close of the Connery Era proper and how the franchise handled its first change of lead actor.
In just five years, the James Bond franchise had grown from a modestly budgeted first film to a worldwide phenomenon. Bond was certainly the king of the spy craze, but there were certainly a number of others nipping at his heels both on television and at the movies, hoping to be the next top superspy. So how was the Bond franchise going to maintain their top dog status? With ninjas and volcano lairs, of course.
Although he would have one more (official) turn as Bond, You Only Live Twice really marks the end of the Connery-era of the Bond franchise. Connery’s return after George Lazenby’s one-off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Diamonds Are Forever wouldn’t attempt to out do the spectacle that came before and instead serves more as a harbinger of what is to come in the Roger Moore-era.
But for You Only Live Twice, surpassing the epic underwater sequences of Thunderball‘s underwater commando fight was a tall order, but director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Roald Dahl – Yes, the author of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a rather odd qualification for writing a Bond film – took Fleming’s novel and tossed it aside in favor of a story of hijacked space crafts and nuclear brinkmanship.
The iconic SPECTRE volcano lair is perhaps the apex of Ken Adam’s design work on the franchise, built for a cost that roughly equaled the entire production budget for Dr. No just a few years previous. (It also continues his fascination for designing rooms with angular ceilings with circles in the middle.) It is a set that would be referenced by filmmakers over the next several decades, perhaps most recently and lovingly by animator Brad Bird for his 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles.
The sheer immense size of the set speaks to the scope that the franchise has reached more than anything else and supplies a verisimilitude that you just weren’t going to get with a smaller set and some matte paintings and other tricks. Sure, you can glimpse the cable lowering the SPECTRE rocket with its captive Soviet space capsule down into the set at one point, but come on! They were doing the whole thing in full scale! There’s no models here and the entire second half of the film is the better for it.
Amidst all the spectacle, the film does loose track of a few things, like the third cosmonaut of the group of kidnapped US and Soviet spacecraft pilots that Bond frees after infiltrating the SPECTRE base. Kidnapped astronauts would also feature in the James Coburn-starring spy spoof In Like Flint, but that film actual beat Bond to theaters by two months.
After three films worth of teasing, You Only Live Twice finally reveals the face of SPECTRE’s leader Ernest Stavro Blofeld, and fittingly, we the audience get to see his face for the first time exactly as Bond does. Going into the film though, it should have been obvious to first time audiences that this was going to happen. You don’t just hire Donald Pleasence for a role and then keep him hidden for the whole movie.
But for all of its innovation, You Only Live Twice does repeat a few things that we’ve seen in Bond films before. The opener once again features the fake out of Bond being killed, just like in the opening of From Russia With Love. This is the second film in a row that features Q (Desmond Llewellyn) going “out into the field,” to equip Bond, and he seems no happier about it here than he was in Thunderball. Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) becomes the latest woman to help Bond only to end up in a pine box for her troubles. And the film once again features an ending with 007 on a boat of some kind with a woman. It’s an ending that the next installment in the franchise would certainly be not repeating.
So much has been written, discussed, gossiped and speculated on Connery’s temporary departure from the Bond franchise and the circumstances of George Lazenby’s short tenure in the role, that the fact that the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is perhaps one of the best that the franchise has to offer often gets overlooked.
After serving as second unit director on the last two Bond films, Peter Hunt is given the reins on this new film and the result is a number of positive changes. Hunt brings a reinvigorated visual energy to the proceedings right from the opening fight on the beach through his camera moves and faster paced editing. (We’re just going to ignore the fact that the natural lighting is all over the place in that scene.) This work makes the fights more visceral and up close, a fitting compliment to a story that connects more on a personal level with 007 himself.
That this story, which perhaps asks us to draw on our connection with Bond the most out of all the films in the franchise so far, does so while attempting to introduce a brand new actor in the role for the first time, is ironic. And the filmmakers definitely want us to connect Lazenby’s Bond to Connery’s. (Outside of the “This never happened to the other guy,” fourth wall-breaking quip in the pre-credits scene.) The opening credits of the film feature scenes from the previous films falling through an hour glass, definitely suggesting a continuity through the films. It is brought up again, perhaps a bit more obviously, when Bond goes to clean out his office desk after resigning from MI6 and pulls out a number of things from a drawer that are instantly recognizable from previous films. Even Moneypenny remarks at one point that he’s the “Same old James.”
But if we are to go along with the producer’s insistence that this is the same 007 whose adventures we have been thrilling to now for over half a decade just with a different face, than why is it that they hinge a major plot point on Blofeld not recognizing Bond even though they came very much face to face previously in You Only Live Twice. It isn’t until Bond flubbed a detail about Blofeld’s family background that he blew his cover. And for that matter, why would M think it was a good idea for Bond to go undercover in Blofeld’s research facility – at the stunning, real world Alpine location of Piz Gloria – knowing that the two had previously met. Were they hoping that Blofeld had a really bad memory and forgotten what Bond looked like in the transpiring two years?
Telly Savalis, for his part, makes the role of Blofeld his own. And while it is supposedly is the same character across the franchise, as the third person to play the part, Savalis seems to be a bit divorced from how the character was portrayed previously.
Lazenby has some large dress shoes to fill and he does it exceedingly well, all things considered. He brings a slightly more cat-like grace that contrasts Connery’s slightly more brutish physical presence. And for being essentially a neophyte to acting, his provides a solid performance, being most effective with the short scene he shares with Moneypenny at his wedding and in the film’s closing moments.
Next Up – Connery returns! Then leaves again!